The Range Railway History

"The Range Railway and Toowoomba to Spring Bluff" by Ernie Hills

Rails were brought to Toowoomba by bullock wagons so that work could progress from both ends at once. Mr Abram Fitzgibbon was appointed engineer in charge and later became the first Railway Commissioner. There were setbacks, such as the loss by shipwreck of some of the iron for bridges, and the cave-in of a tunnel which had to be re-border. The line to line was officially opened to Toowoomba on 1st May 1867.The station was not ready till 1874. But has withstood the test of time for well over 130 years, and is now in use as railway offices.


How Did They Do It?

The ascent of the range is accomplished by following the contours, rising all the time, the track being laid on a ledge on the mountain side where possible. Cuttings have been made where this cannot be done, and the route is close enough to the end of a spur, tunnels made where it is not. The line crosses gullies by bridges and culverts or by embankments. The deepest cutting is 17.4 metres; the highest bridge is 22.25 metres, and the highest embankment 13.10 metres. Originally there were 47 bridges, but to reduce maintenance this has been reduced to fourteen. Iron bridges of the lattice girder type were built at first but most have been replaced by steel, masonry, prestressed concrete and a few wooden ones, to raise the axle load that may be carried. The first rails were made of iron ones weighing 40lbs (18.15 kilograms) to the yard (0.9144 meters), these have been replaced by steel up to 82lbs (37.2 kilograms), elastic dog spikes are now used, with steel chairs under the outer rails on curves, with automatic greasers to reduce friction. Of the thirty kilometres of track Murphy’s Creek and Toowoomba, seventeen kilometres are curves, many of them five chains (91.44 meters) in radius. The average grade is one in seventy, or thirty centimetres rise in sixty-one metres, with some as steep as 30 centimetres in 46 metres.


A Rack Railway

When the range railway was being planned, a rack railway from Highfields, or Spring Bluff as it is now called, was considered. It would have topped the range in the vicinity of the northern road which is now known as Highfields. The idea was abandoned, as the amount of load which could be brought up in this way would have been smaller and the running time slower. The names were changed in 1890, Spring Bluff being so called because it is on mountain streamlet and waterfall.


Up and Up We Go

Murphy’s Creek at the foot of the range proper is 260 metres above sea level, and Harlaxton is at 691 metres, so that in 26.5 kilometres the line rises 391 metres. On the trip from Harlaxton, 3.5 kilometres, it rises from Toowoomba at 624 metres, and then descends 236.5 metres in 11.620 kilometres to Spring Bluff. In the steam locomotive era, all the heavy goods trains from Brisbane had to have an engine at the rear to push them from Murphy’s Creek to Toowoomba. As many as ten engines were sent from Toowoomba nightly for this purpose. Water for engines was provided at Helidon. Murphy’s Creek and Spring Bluff.


Modern Traffic

One diesel can bring up as much as three steam locomotives at a faster speed without any stops for water. A diesel can take as much as two steam locos down the range, and frequently two of them working in multiple are used to take a double load of 2,200 tonnes at thirty kilometres pr hour, almost passenger speed train speed. Wagons carrying containers must be kept to a lower speed in several tunnels that are on sharp curves because the top corners of the containers will scrape the arched top of the tunnels by swaying at higher speed, bulk coal and grain wagons do not present any problems, and can run at normal speed. All trains are equipped with Westinghouse automatic air brakes. Some diesel electric loco also have dynamic brakes, which when travelling down long grades can use their traction motors as generators, the current being passed through resistors to retard the wheels.


Toowoomba to Spring Bluff

Leaving the platform we move slowly through the booms at Bridge Street, and up the steep climb to Harlaxton. Below on the left we may see the Willowburn marshaling yards, diesel servicing depot, stores and workshops, with rail tracks connecting them with Toowoomba and Willowburn. The train passes under the bridge over which the main road passes and from there to Murphy’s Creek it is all downhill on the Range Railway. On the right is the quarry which supplies blue metal ballast and screening for use on railway lines. Harlaxton was opened as a station in 1884 mainly for the convenience of the Governor Sir Matthew Nathan, whose summer residence was Harlaxton House. Horse drawn carriages would convey guests from the station to the house. Ahead is the first big cutting, called Campbell’s Cutting, and during the construction of the railway there was a big workers camp on the hill nearby. After a couple of fairly wide curves we come to Rangeview, the first station. On the right there is a splendid panorama of the Lockyer Valley beyond the ranges, with the Liverpool Range on the horizon. The towns of Helidon, Grantham, Gatton and Forest Hill may be picked out. The train winds around and crosses a picturesque three arch bridge called “Swanson’s Bridge”. Soon we come to the first tunnel, N09, then two low bridges, around two curves, and through two more tunnels, “the Twins” Watch on the right hand side as the train goes through the of these and you will notice a side entrance or admit that was made while the tunnel was being bored so that the men could work on four faces of rock at once. It is called a “Manhole Tunnel”. Some year’s age a landslide occurred between these tunnels at night. The “Dirranbandi Mail” train ran into the pile of rocks and earth, causing the death of one passenger and injuries to others. Emerging from No6 tunnel, we come to the former crossing loop of Ballard and pass under the bridge over which goes the Murphy’s Creek road. The station was named after Robert Ballard, a brilliant young engineer who supervised much of the work of building the Range railway. There was a large camp here when it was being constructed. The line swings to the right to go through tunnel No5 Next is the No4 or “Spring Bluff” tunnel a long one with an “S” curve in it, and from here right to Spring Bluff there is a very steep grade. Koala bears live in the trees and sometime cross the time. Soon the train rounds a curve and drifts gentile to Spring Bluff station,  prettily situated on a gurgling mountain stream with a waterfall, on which is a weir that keeps tanks filled to supply the houses and gardens. The station gardens are world famous, consistently winning prizes in Carnival of Flowers competitions.